By Alek Sigley, Tongil Tours founder and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
Most days when I get hungry you’ll find me eating the perennial local favourite and specialty Pyongyang cold noodles (평양랭면) for either lunch or dinner. For $1 USD per bowl (in the dormitory restaurant—can be even cheaper outside) with 100 grams of that lovely, chewy, dark brown buckwheat noodle, pickled radish, cucumber, chili sauce, half a boiled egg and a few slices of meat, I’m most happy to have it almost every day. It’s that or onban (온반), a dish consisting of white rice soaked in warm chicken broth and often topped with a mung bean pancake. Sometimes I’ll get kimchi fried rice or one of the various meat on rice (덧밥) dishes to vary things up a bit. But there are inevitably times when I can’t beat the hankering for a bit of middle kingdom fare. I am half Chinese after all.
Thankfully there are some good choices within walking distance from our dormitory on Ryomyong Street. I speak mandarin and have befriended some of the Chinese students in the dorm (who make up the vast majority of foreign students here), who have kindly showed me some of their recommended spots.
Less than five minutes’ walk from our dormitory, just behind the tall apartment blocks of Ryomyong Street opposite the main gate of Kim Il Sung University, is a little place that serves mostly Korean food (and pizza!) called Ryongbuk Restaurant (Ryongbuk is the neighborhood that the dormitory is located in). But ask the waitresses what the restaurant’s specialty is and they will point to a kind of hot pot dish with a somewhat dull name in Korean on the menu. This is essentially a Sichuanese dry hot pot dish, malaxiangguo （麻辣香锅）. On my first visit myself and a friend shared one serving for $12 USD. We found that it was big enough to fill three people.
And it really tastes just like the stuff I’ve had in China or at the homes of Sichuanese people. With generous amounts of chilli, the mouth-numbing Sichuanese chilli pepper, and other spices, mixed in with three kinds of fish ball, tofu, tofu skin, mu er (a kind of edible fungus with a nice rubbery texture), golden needle mushroom, bamboo shoot, lotus root, and those flat, chewy, potato starch noodles, I was most surprised to find Chinese food this authentic minutes’ walk from the dormitory within 24 hours of arriving two weeks ago.
In my second week here I got to know a Chinese student who had just finished his one year of basic Korean language study at Kim Hyong Jik University of Education (where we run our Pyongyang Summer Language Program, applications still open for this year’s program!), and was starting a bachelor’s degree here at Kim Il Sung University. He told me that he had discovered a Shaxian snack (沙县小吃) restaurant that he rated quite highly, also within walking distance of the dormitory. Apparently the chef was from Fujian Province, which is where this style of cuisine, typified by rice noodles and dumplings, originates.
So we set off there for lunch one day, walking down the length of Ryomyong Street, past the university main gate and Samhung subway station, past the Miniso (now renamed Jinhwa) and the 70 story apartment block. At the end of Ryomyong Street there stands a “Tower of Eternal Life” and the April 25 Hall, past which runs the Potong River. It was a nice early spring day, with beautiful clear blue skies. By a small park along the river at the end of Ryomyong Street crowds of old men gathered around watching games of Korean chess unfold. People were wading in the river fishing. We walked under a bridge and reached a nondescript, grey, three story building, the Myohyang Changkyŏng Store, located just opposite the river from the April 25 Hall and dwarfed by the rainbow coloured pastel apartment blocks so typical of 70s and 80s Pyongyang architecture.
We headed up the stairs, past a goldfish tank with some quite fancy Japanese goldfish in it, to the third floor where the restaurant was located. I noticed that the alcohol cabinet was well stocked with various kinds of local soju as well as my old nemesis, erguotou (二锅头), a cheap but extremely potent (about 50%) variety of Chinese baijiu spirit, a favourite of the Chinese working class which we used to have occasionally during my students days in China.
We decided to forego alcohol this time since it was lunchtime on a school day, but ended up starting with a serving of Yangzhou fried rice (扬州炒饭) for each of us. After that we ordered the northern style sweet and sour pork, guobaorou (锅包肉) and a meat dish that was “like charsiew” (叉烧肉), but with a Korean twist in that it was served sliced up and on a dish with cabbage and lettuce leaves, ssamchang (a chilli and soy bean paste sauce), and garlic slices so that diners could choose to wrap the meat in the vegetables if they liked to (this is how Koreans often eat barbequed meat). The fried rice was $2 USD a serving, the guobaorou was $3.5, and the “charsiew” was $5, and all were passable, although not quite as good as the malaxiangguo from the other day.
At any rate, it’s interesting to see that decent Chinese food is available in Pyongyang—which isn’t necessarily known for its culinary scene. This goes to show that in the capital at least, there’s enough critical mass and people with the disposable income to create the conditions for such places to exist. It also demonstrates that that aspect of East Asian culture which lays great importance on cuisine is still alive and well in North Korea.